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President Bush, left, receives a game ball from University of Florida quarterback Chris Leak, as the president honored the 2006 NCAA champion Gators at the South Lawn of the White House.
AP photo by Lawrence Jackson
President Bush, left, receives a game ball from University of Florida quarterback Chris Leak, as the president honored the 2006 NCAA champion Gators at the South Lawn of the White House.

National champion Gators turn South Lawn into the Swamp

By Ben Feller
Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON — Any time he honors a championship team, President Bush looks for a chance to bring up the underdog theme.

If he can link it to his own presidency, that’s even better.

So welcome to the White House, Florida Gators. You fit right in.

In a chilly South Lawn ceremony, Bush lauded the University of Florida’s football team on Monday for its 2006 championship season. The Gators routed Ohio State 41-14 in January despite being given little chance to win by oddsmakers.

“Like you might remember, all the pre-game polls said you couldn’t win,” Bush told the team. “So much for polls.”

Florida became the first school in NCAA history to hold national titles in men’s basketball and football in the same season. These are heady times in Gainesville, Fla. — the basketball team is the midst of defending its title and has already won twice in this month’s NCAA tournament.

“It’s amazing, isn’t it?” Bush asked. “The basketball team, and now the football team. What are you doing down there?”

Under coach Urban Meyer’s game plan, Florida won by using two quarterbacks — senior Chris Leak and freshman Tim Tebow. Leak stood next to Meyer at the ceremony, directly behind the president. Tebow was a row behind them.

Turning to find them both, Bush said, “That’s what we call teammates, people playing together for the common good.”

Florida played plenty of defense, too. In one memorable play in the championship game, linebacker Earl Everett lost his helmet but kept running and chased down Ohio State quarterback Troy Smith for a tackle.

“I’ve seen that face before,” Bush told a smiling Everett. “So has the whole country. You might remember, Everett lost his headgear. He didn’t lose his head, but he lost his headgear and he went on to make a great tackle in a key moment. That’s called tough defense.”

The players filled up a platform behind Bush, with others lining both staircases under the South Portico.

Bush thanked players for being community volunteers. He went on to praise just about everyone he could, from the coaches to the people who sell the team’s tickets to “those who pick up the towels and make the program run.”

Meyer gave Bush an orange-and-blue Gator jersey, emblazoned with the number 43, marking Bush’s place in the presidential lineage. Leak gave Bush a championship football. In a crowd of hundreds of Florida supporters, someone occasionally shouted, “Go, Gators.”

Leak capped it all off with a mention of the team’s stadium, as it is known to Florida faithful. “This is the day,” he said, “we turned the White House into the Swamp.”

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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